Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: "Hairspray" from Pittsburgh CLO.

Once again Pittsburgh CLO comes across with a polished, first-rate production. This time it’s Hairspray and the charming near-cartoon has the right style and look.

It is based on John Waters’ 1988 same- named movie, which some people feel is a camp classic, especially given that it features drag star Divine. The Broadway musical version opened in August 2002 with Harvey Fierstein starring in the stage transformation of the role Divine created. He got lots of praise as did the whole thing which ran for a six and half years and garnered eight Tonys.

Clearly it remains a lightweight show but, by not aiming for camp, instead it stays cute, friendly and sincere, well in keeping with the many simple-minded songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show does have an underpinning theme about racism in the early 1960s, but it never pushes that too hard. And director/choreographer Barry Ivan and his skilled cast have found the way to play it.

Just to be sure you know what it’s about: in 1962 Baltimore chubby teen Tracy Turnblad wants to become a dancer on a local record-hop TV show. She learns terrific steps from black students when she and her friend Penny become pals with black kids. Penny’s racist mother Prudy does all she can to stop that. But Tracy’s proportion-challenged mother, Edna, is delighted when her daughter gets on the show. A third mother figures in this , Velma Von Tussle, another racist, who produces the TV show and does all she can to make her daughter Amber a star. Meanwhile Tracy and Penny do all they can to get their black friends on the show and into contests.

The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan keeps everything fundamental with a kind of warm charm, simple gags and gentle skimming over references to American culture of the time. Consequently this doesn’t try to get major mileage out of period nostalgia nor become a heavily pointed piece about racism. It exists on its own plane.

Undoubtedly many people expect to see Paul Vogt make the most of Edna (the Divine/Fierstein role) given the character’s outsized reputation. Vogt, in fact, has played it Broadway. Here he sometimes underplays as if trying to make Edna real, doing that well, but at other times he shifts into different voices, as if to remind everyone that he’s a guy in drag. Ivan should have reined in such shtick. Vogt, however, definitely sings better than does the grating, gravelly Fierstein on the CD of the show.

Everyone else does consistent justice to the concept. I was especially impressed with the singing of Luba Mason and Kecia Lewis-Evans as Velma and Motormouth Maybelle, a black community leader. Plus Madeline Doherty shines in three character roles, a talent she displayed before as cute, little, libidinous biddy Hold- Me, Touch-Me in CLO’s take on The Producers. By the way, five local talents have small roles in the cast including the classy Maria Becoates-Bey.

Although Shaiman and Wittman created a lot of songs sounding like early 60s pop/rock they never seem to making fun of the style but rather having fun with it. As a more musically interesting plus they also created some catchy R & B/soul numbers for the black characters.


Hairspray continues through Sunday July 31st at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown.
412-456-6666 or

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: "S'Wonderful" at CLO Cabaret. Broadcast Sunday 8th August 2010

Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret currently offers what it bills as an “all-singing, all-dancing” show. Can a show be “all” of anything twice? Dialogue crops up too. . Moreover this slapdash revue, S’Wonderful-The New Gershwin Musical, features not one but five “mini-musicals.” Even the promotional material needs work. Think of it as a revue.

If this world-premiering item, in its present form and condition, goes to some other town it certainly won’t do much credit to CLO.

CLO did get authorization from the Gershwin estate to produce director Ray Roderick’s concept of a vehicle featuring more than 40 songs by George and Ira. Why not? That’s a nice chunk of change royalty-wise. And Roderick’s apparent intention suggests good possibilities. This claims to be “inspired by the real events occurring in and around the lives of the brothers” according to the program book. That means that they got involved with a newspaper reporter pursuing a shoplifter in New York in 1916 when the Gershwins were in the teens: mini-musical #1. Or experienced the break-up of a romance between a nightclub singer and her boyfriend in New Orleans in the 1950s when George was dead: mini-musical #4. Or that both are still alive, given that # 5 takes place in “here and now” where a young man falls in love with another young man. Yes, there were always rumors about George being gay, but there’s no rumor that he didn't die.
Still, if someone creative had written a script with substance about the brothers’ lives or verbally, perhaps with narration, tried to justify both the above claim and the premise, this could be something original and interesting. Instead it remains a relentlessly cheery, breathless rush through too many songs, presumably, though marginally related to the tiny themes of the mini-musicals.

As for the singing, the cast accurately vocalizes everything, able to seem effortless while executing Vince Pesce’s primitive choreography. As for interpretation, nearly every song is delivered uncolored and uninflected by specific interpretation. Don’t blame the cast, though, they haven’t got time to concentrate on that; they also have constant costume changes. It’s as if Roderick thought that the songs can sell themselves. Nonetheless, once or twice, Montaja Simmons exhibits genuine personality in her delivery.

To add to the misguided generic qualities of this show, the actors are given one character name each in the program book, despite that fact that they portray different characters in the mini-musicals.

Occasionally more than one person sings at the same time and that comes across really well. But after a while, with only Deana Muro at the piano, the sound of the show becomes thin. Not that that’s Muro’s fault. She plays with verse, dash, style and skill, knocking out the notes, non-stop including parts of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” She deserves accolades.

Roderick, on the other hand, should try creating a good show, instead of thinking, apparently, that the name Gershwin attached to anything will fill his and his investors pockets. Despite his evidently extensive professional theatre credits, this looks like something he amateurishly dashed off in his spare time.

S’Wonderful continues through September 5th at CLO Cabaret 655 Penn Avenue, Downtown, 412-456-6666 or

Friday, July 2, 2010

Theatre Review: "Mad Honey" from Unseam'd Shakespeare Company- 4th July 2010

Clearly Pittsburgh’s Amy Hartman has many original, varied and fascinating ideas for plays, including Mad Honey produced by Unseam’d Shakespeare Company. It has elements in common with The Chicken Snake, at Pittsburgh Playhouse in April last year and Mazel May 2007’s final production by The Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh. All three plays stay full of invention, imagination and compassion portraying the dark undercurrents of dysfunctional families. Director Robin Walsh keeps this production dynamic and human and also evokes solid, truthful performances from most of the cast.

The story has some Eugene O’Neill shadows along with suggestions of ancient Greek legends, a valid dovetail, especially given Mourning Becomes Electra which concerns another haunted family.

In 1936, in rural eastern Pennsylvania, teenage Willow prompts the murder of the man who made her pregnant, her father. Postman Tibits, an older man who loves her, is the poisoner using “mad honey,” something which real bees have accidentally created as far back as ancient Greece. Tibits arranges to have the newborn twins go to separate foster homes. One of them belongs to Myrtle Peterson who also fancies Mr. Tibits. Willow, having disguised herself as a man known as Billy, in 1952, tries to reconnect with her teen son Stewart. Meanwhile he has learned how to make “mad honey” and has used it to sicken bullies at his school. But then he gets involved with neighboring Penny Jenners and complications ensue.

The first part of the play crosses back and forth in time and may not seem completely easy to grasp. Given fairly straightforward language with only a few traces of folksy intonations, the concept acquires an interesting mysterious dimension, so that, in effect, the audience has to do some work to figure out what’s happening, although that’s not too complex.

You might have extra work, though, trying to understand Paul Ford as Tibits, if he plays it as he did on opening night. That could become a problem; he has major exposition. Tibits is supposed to be Irish and, evidently, Ford works hard at the accent. But, when I saw him, he raced through too many lines with only about one-third of his dialogue becoming clear, even though the characterization seemed genuine. On the other hand, Autumn Ayers gave an exceptionally convincing performance as Willow transformed into Billy, tough on the outside, vulnerable and sorrowful on the inside. Matt McNear’s version of Stewart also remained totally believable and definitive. Alas, Laurie Klatscher didn’t get any of the potential comedy out of Myrtle often overplaying loudly. Too bad; there seem to be a lot of possibilities for the role to be funny, a good way to lighten parts of the play and create more variety.

This is not the first production. There was one in Bloomington, Indiana about three years ago and evidently Hartman has made several revisions since. This version certainly works well and commands attention. It could become especially effective if Ford and Klatscher get perceptive guidance from director Walsh.

Mad Honey continues at the Studio Theater, the Cathedral of Learning, Oakland, through July 17th. ProArts Tickets is the source : 412/394-3353 or Website: